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The Mikado (04/02/1987 - 05/03/1987)


New York Daily News: "A Grand Pooh-Bah, and a Delicious Yum-Yum"

This production of "The Mikado" opened originally at the City Center January 13, 1987 and, after a short tour, reopened at the Virginia April 2, 1987.

The first attraction in this year's International Premiere Celebration presented by the 55th Street Dance Theater Foundation opened for a week's run at the City Center Tuesday night. It was, however, not a ballet but an operetta - Gilbert & Sullivan's perennial favorite, "The Mikado."

Brian Macdonald's staging of "The Mikado" has already been seen in this city via PBS television. Some Savoyard purists complained about Macdonald's frequent breaks with G & S tradition. The score was entirely reorchestrated, often in the manner of Joseph Papp's Broadway version of "Pirates of Penzance"; some non-Sullivan music was added; and many passages in Gilbert's book and lyrics were revised to give the show contemporary relevance.

Actually, the text changes work. Gilbert's poetry and prose spoofed the political and social climate of Victorian England, and there is really no reason - barring questions of taste - why one can't change some words to spoof the foibles of our own time. It's pointedly amusing when the Mikado, in his "Let the Punishment Fit the Crime" aria, makes references to Japanese cars invading the U.S. market, New York subways, insider trading on Wall Street, Donald Trump and Joan Rivers.

What's disturbing, though, are some of the sounds coming from the orchestra pit. There's nothing wrong with adding tam-tam crashes to punctuate portentous situations. However, as in Papp's "Pirates," the use of synthesizers and egregious tinkles on the xylophone, glockenspiel and marimba completely falsifies the character of the music.

That said, this "Mikado" is otherwise most enjoyable. Macdonald's staging is busy yet always humorously in focus, and the fact that Susan Benson's elaborate costumes and props contrast strikingly with her very simple sets allows the viewer to concentrate fully on the characters.

None of the cast members could be called a great singer, but they all perform vivaciously. As the diffident Lord High Executioner Ko-Ko, Eric Donkin proved his expertise in patter, and his uncanny resemblance to Rodney Dangerfield certainly didn't do any harm. Arlene Meadows - gloriously homely in the manner of Marie Dressler - was a virtually definitive Katisha, and her scenes with Donkin were pricelessly hilarious.

John Keane and Marie Baron were very attractive as Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum, and Avo Kittask caught all the parody inherent in the Mikado's scenes. I don't think I've ever seen a funnier Pooh-Bah than Richard McMillan, though I've certainly heard better - the role demands the rolling tones of a true basso profondo, and that, unfortunately, McMillan is not. Considering the problems in the orchestration, Berthold Carriere's conducting was most adroit.

New York Daily News

New York Post: "G & S: no joy for the purists"

This production of "The Mikado" opened originally at the City Center January 13, 1987 and, after a short tour, reopened at the Virginia April 2, 1987.

Over the past 25 or so years - since the D'Oyly Carte copyright on Gilbert and Sullivan finally and mercifully lapsed - there have been various productions of "The Mikado" here, there and everywhere.

The one that arrived last night at the City Center Theater from Canada's Stratford Festival proved blithe, cheerful and colorless. It will not offend G & S purists (except the most dying of the die-hards), but nor is it likely to enchant them.

Its limitations make only a little list - but they are, unfortunately, list enough.

First nowadays we expect voices of operatic - or near operatic - caliber in Gilbert and Sullivan, and this the Stratfordians, while North America's leading theater troupe - scarcely attempt to provide. Nor really - in some key roles - do they offer truly outstanding clowns.

Second - apart from this undercasting - the production has no point of view. The accounts of Jonathan Miller's controversial "Mikado," which has just erupted with the English National Opera in London, make this deficiency all the more noticeable.

After all, what an extraordinary English tribal rite of Empire this pieces of coarse japonaiserie actually is, with its jolly English tunes, merry savages and witty yet also facetious Gilbertian tonguetwisting.

How heartless it is, how sexless! What a remarkable complacency it has - even the music sounds smug and self-satisfied, while the humor is plump, a sort of genteel version of the lower-classed English music halls, whose more robust rituals are mimicked and patronized.

This said, it must also be admitted that Brian Macdonald's essentially balletic staging does have its own definite merits.

Certainly it is agreeable to escape from the awesome and heavy hand of the D'Oyly Carte Opera, and all that tediously traditional Savoyard rigmarole and caricature.

Macdonald's production is bright and breezy - full of acrobats, tumblers, and amusing scenery changes. Some of the set pieces are most expertly choreographed, and the whole operetta moves exceptionally well.

It is much helped here by the plain but imaginatively elegant scenery by Susan Benson and Douglas McLean, and Miss Benson's vibrant costumes, which suggest a more authentic Japan than either Gilbert or Sullivan ever dreamed of.

Unfortunately the look of the show - it has an air of Stephen Sondheim's "Pacific Overtures" to it - hardly meshes with the music, and the legitimate speed of the ensembles is continually being held up the tiny patter of patter songs and their accompanying patter dances.

Thus what we see is not quite what we hear, and there is no profit made from the contrast, which is left unnoticed rather than used for contemporary comment.

But the real weakness of the evening comes from the performances, which are just not good enough.

Oddly enough, this Stratford Company, although rightly world renowned for its Shakespeare, also has a lively tradition of Gilbert and Sullivan productions, stretching back to its first artistic director, Sir Tyrone Guthrie.

But in those - or so it seems to me in retrospect - the comedians were either better directed (which is possible) or more talented.

Eric Donkin's Ko-Ko is low-calorie indeed. It has no gusto or guts, and Mr. Donkin is no singer. As Pooh-Bah, Richard McMillan sings perhaps a little better, but his characterization is excessively ordinary, stabbed out with stock acting.

Avo Kittask - the best singer of the largely non-vocal bunch - was at the very least a capable Mikado, with a decently gurgling bloodthirsty laugh, and a bass voice of reasonable range.

The tenor who sings Nanki-Poo scarcely needs the vocal equipment of a Caruso (a Tito Schipa would have done very nicely!) but he needs a stronger more reliant voice and firmer personality than that displayed by John Keane - a singer who unexpectedly made me almost pine for the D'Oyly Carte.

Arlene Meadows was clumsily non-monstrous as Katisha (one of Gilbert's uglier Victorian sexist attacks on women) and Marie Baron almost sweetly unnoticeable as Yum-Yum.

So, let me register what Gilbert called somewhat "modified rapture" at this "Mikado" - incidentally, and all praise to him for this, isn't it amazing how many Gilbertian phrases have entered our language - but with Berthold Carriere's lively conducting, and Macdonald's agreeably harum-scarum staging, the evening has a certain liveliness to commend it.

And at least you will come out humming those catchy little Sullivan melodies that always remind me of parrots in a church choir imitating humming birds sings "Rule Brittania" and Handel.

But, of course, that's rather a personal view!

New York Post

New York Times: "A Modern 'Mikado'"

This production of "The Mikado" opened originally at the City Center January 13, 1987 and, after a short tour, reopened at the Virginia April 2, 1987.

The most splendid of many eye-catching moments in the Stratford (Canada) Festival's modernized, thrillingly kinetic production of Gilbert and Sullivan's ''Mikado'' comes in the second act, when the title character makes his grand entrance.

As acrobatic revelers stir up a flurry of anticipation, a giant black-and-white lacquered box is wheeled onto the stage. Instantly, the box magically unfolds into a golden shoji screen that forms a gleaming backdrop against which the ruler (Avo Kittask) unfolds from a kneeling position to his full majesty. Declaiming in his sturdy baritone, ''A More Humane Mikado Never Did in Japan Exist,'' the Mikado announces some of the ways he intends to make ''the punishment fit the crime.''

''The American buyer of imported cars, Toyotas, Mercedes or Saabs/ His teeth I've enacted shall all be extracted by Yankees losing their jobs,'' goes one pronouncement. Unethical financiers are also given fair warning: ''The Wall Street investor with insider knowledge whose methods are due for a cure/Attends an inquiry to quote from his diary till he is both Standard and Poor.''

Clever as they are, these topical lyrics, written by John Banks, don't supersede those of W. S. Gilbert. Like the rest of the production, which arrived at the City Center Theater (131 West 55th Street) on Tuesday, where it will play through Sunday, they blend with the operetta's Victorian elements into a fluent, amusing interplay of sensibilities. The production, directed and choreographed by Brian Macdonald, was first staged at the Stratford Theater Festival in 1982 and is having its New York premiere as part of a national tour that has already seen performances in Boston and Baltimore. The production transforms Gilbert and Sullivan's farcically fussy 1885 warhorse into a streamlined, athletically energetic show that strikes a delightful balance between musty D'Oyly Carte traditions and today's seamless Broadway musical.

The energy of the staging and lyric adaptations extends to the musical end of the show. Under the supervision of Berthold Carriere, the 28-member ensemble creates a glistening choral sound that balances comfortably with the conductor's rhythmically robust orchestral approach. And the individual cast members bring to their roles a crisp clarity of enunciation, along with a broad but controlled mastery of comic persona that stops well short of camp.

Caroling in a chaste high tenor, John Keane's wide-eyed, pony-tailed Nanki-Poo presents the Mikado's renegade son as a latter-day hippie minstrel happily adrift in a morbid romantic dream world. Marie Baron gives the ingenue role of Yum-Yum a dash of satirical vinegar as she muses, ''I wonder in my artless Japanese way why it is I am so much more attractive than anyone else in the world.''

Outfited in courtly garb that makes him resemble a giant-size Monarch butterfly, his waist cinched with a sash that looks like miniature lion heads attached to a string of sausages, husky-voiced Eric Donkin offers an incisive portrayal of Ko-Ko, the none-too-bright tailor who is elevated overnight to the position of Lord High Executioner. In an inspired bit of staging, he delivers ''On a Tree by a River, a Little Tom-Tit Sang, Willow, Tit-Willow'' from the center of a bonsai fir. Richard McMillan's imperious Pooh-Bah almost steals the show with a chameleon voice that ranges from the stratosphere of English upperclass snootiness to a perfect impersonation of Sylvester Stallone.

''The Mikado'' is beautiful to look at. The spare, handsome sets, designed by Susan Benson and Douglas Maclean, offer striking visual tableaus that feature only two or three principal elements - a giant moon, elegant twisted trees, a fan that rises at the back of the stage, hanging flowers, and movable platforms. The spareness of the set gives the cast a lot of room in which to frisk, and Mr. Macdonald's athletic choreography, which uses ritualistic body language and martial arts maneuvers in a humorous way, deftly uses the actors as integral kinetic elements of a high-powered visual concept.

With all its contemporary references, one should not be tempted to find a dark subtext amid all the merriment. The Stratford Festival ''Mikado'' succeeds in what it wants to be - lovely, juicy, silly fun.

New York Times

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